Shenandoah City Council candidates discussed the role of political action committees in local elections, the proposed special events center and funding for a water plant project during the candidate forum hosted by the Voter Awareness Council April 19.
With the exception of Position 2 candidate Jason Camara, all other candidates participated in the forum. These candidates included incumbent John Houston and candidate Ted Fletcher for Position 2, candidates Byron Bevers and Nancy Smith for Position 3 and candidate Charlie Bradt and incumbent Jean Teague for Position 4.
A total of 12 questions were asked during the forum: six submitted by residents and six created by Community Impact Newspaper.
Here are some highlights of the forum:
Q: There is currently a proposed bill in the Texas Legislature that would help the city to build a special events center funded by hotel occupancy tax collections on the east side of I-45. Are you in support of having a special events center in the city of Shenandoah and do you believe this is something the city should fund?
John Houston: I am in support of doing a feasibility study to identify how much that would offer the citizens of Shenandoah. Obviously, it’s going to be a convention and visitor’s bureau process and the whole intention will be to help put heads in beds at our hotels. Since we derive 80 percent of our general fund from sales tax, it’s a big deal. So I think it’s certainly something worth looking into; I would not say that I support it except that I support a feasibility study to see what exactly it could potentially be. There is a committee out there now that is working on that to identify those parameters and identify what needs it might fill. It is special events, it’s not just a convention center, it’s also for other activities based on what comes out of the state Legislature.
Ted Fletcher: I would move that more to say, as far as supporting or not supporting, really depends upon our residents. I think the feasibility study should come back to them and what they want to have for the city. Personally, I don’t think the city needs to incur $30 million worth of debt to build a convention center. I’m a free market guy, so I’m very much so in favor of the markets taking place and doing what they should do. If it was a great thing to have within the city, it probably would’ve already been done by the free enterprise system. My concern is that even though we have the hotel tax that would pay for it, what happens if we don’t have the heads in beds, who is liable to pay for it then? Because that $30 million debt becomes the liability of the city and it’s not a matter of where it’s going to get paid out of the hotel tax anymore, it’s coming out of our general fund to pay that debt. So that’s my concern with the events center, so again, I think it comes back to the people and really what the citizens of Shenandoah want—that’s what we should proceed forward with. Of course, with the feasibility study coming back in and those facts being circulated within our community, I think everybody can make the final decision at that point. But that would be my primary concern, if we don’t have heads in beds, we’re stuck with a $30 million debt.
Byron Bevers: I am against the $30 million debt for a special events center, that doesn’t make me necessarily against a special events center. A secondary issue to the special events center includes what the priorities of the city are. Is the pursuit of a $30 million special events center one of the reasons we’ve approved over 1,000 additional hotel rooms in recent years. So I’d want to look at it holistically and definitely not incur that additional debt.
Jean Teague: I would just like to add that the city council created a committee to study the needs and the desires and what the plan should be for the special events center. That committee is made up of CISD members, local business owners and residents as well as council members.
Charlie Bradt: From the outside, I pretty much agree that I would not support the special events center—not without a lot of deep soul searching and information from newer… I would be open to it if I was convinced that it would be beneficial to Shenandoah.
Q: How do you feel about a bond issue to build a new water plant in the city?
Jean Teague: The water plant has been in planning stages since 2006—that’s when it started. We drilled a water well and we’ve done $2 million-$3 million worth of projects to prepare for this water well. We are studying all aspects of funding sources including using some reserves or going out for bond. The bids came back much less than was anticipated so that’s a good thing, but I’m not opposed to looking at a bond or a combination bond and reserve funds. It just depends on what our financial advisers come back with because if we use up our reserve funds it could lower our bond rating and it could also ding us in bond ratings and interest rates.
Charlie Bradt: Well I’m pretty much against the bonds. What she says is true, I don’t disagree with that. But if it’s been in the process since 2006 we could’ve approved some money or we could’ve done a lot of things other than going out on a 15- or 20-year bond for $3 million. Once you keep borrowing money at this rate, and if they do $29 million bond for the PID holder at MetroPark [Square], I think we’re just overextending ourselves.
Nancy Smith: I am happy when I saw City Council look at different views on paying for the water plant. There was discussion, like Mrs. Teague said, about we could do half fund half cash, what I do support is having as much cash reserves in the bank as possible. Our city administrator has set a goal to have one year of cash reserves available for us to use should we need to have it available for any reason, whether there’s an economic downtown or another hurricane or one of our tax providers over there burns down, so I would not be very supportive of paying for this entire project in cash. I am happy that the price went down, I also know that there are a couple of repairs that need to be done, so I think we need to be very careful and look at this very strategically before we make a decision.
Byron Bevers: I am opposed to the bond 100 percent. The Municipal Development District has $5.5 million cash—it can pay for the plant in cash today and have no negative effect on our bond rating and no negative effect on our operational reserves. The MDD has almost no operational expenses so that would have absolutely no effect on the rainy day fund or any other type of reserves.
Ted Fletcher: I’m completely against the bond issue. I think it’s a bad choice. If we’ve been planning for this since 2006, then we need to do a little bit better planning. For example, if we’ve been planning for this since 2006 and knew that we were going to have to come up with at least $2.4 million for a new water plant, why did we spend $350,000 to replace entry signs to the neighborhoods when that wasn’t necessary to be done? I think when it comes to budgeting and when it comes to this matter in specific, it takes better planning, we need to be more proactive in making sure that the funds we’re utilizing for these types of projects especially, don’t come out of our general fund. We do have a Municipal Development District and most people on our side of the community don’t even understand what that is. But we receive a half a percent, or about $1.8 million-$1.9 million currently in sales tax that go to our MDD. If we’ve been planning this since 2006, then why did our MDD do pathways this year—we spent $550,000 and the city spent another $440,000. If we would had used those funds for this project—for the well—then we wouldn’t have to have a bond issue at all.
John Houston: Number one, I’m pretty sure the MDD has several other projects on their desk that they’re looking at to fund, so it wouldn’t be a good idea to run them out and I believe their amount of funds right now is somewhere between $2 million-$3 million—not $5 million. But I seriously think that the bond issue, if it was just partially a part of that expenditure—would not be a problem to look at. There have been no decisions made on that, we’re still looking at options. I would think that a combination of the bond as well as looking at using some of the reserves, but the reserves are there for a purpose and I would not be interested in reducing those too much.
Q: Do you feel political action committees should be involved in municipal elections involved in local municipal elections? Why or why not?
Ted Fletcher: That’s a good question overall. I think the real question with the political action committee is, what’s the contribution to the local government and the local residents? So if they’re making a contribution for or against something, that probably needs to be something that’s looked at. I don’t think that all political action committees are necessarily a bad thing because it brings oversight, just as in city council, we have a lot of 3-2 votes, I’m not against 3-2 votes because it focuses discussion, it answers questions, it brings things to light that need to be looked at a little closer. If everything was perfect, then political action committees probably wouldn’t exist. Many political action committees do take a closer look at city governments, rightfully, as well as statewide and countywide and in many cases for good reasons. In some cases, probably not as such and I’ll steal this line from Byron, some may take a chainsaw when really a scalpel is kindly needed. So I’m not really necessarily for or against political action committees, I mean they are what they are. I’m not a member of a political action committee, but like I said I think that sometimes they direct attention where attention needs to be directed.
John Houston: I am against political action committees as it relates to city government. I think that we should have impartial and nonpartisan involvement that includes the citizens and residents. To me, political action committees push down their thoughts and bring into the city their determination because they lobby all over the state and if there are things going on outside of the city that they think Shenandoah should be involved in, and that tends to be a little bit of a pressure to make those kinds of changes. I think that they aren’t really interested in the city of Shenandoah when they come in here. I know that they’re not interested in the citizens, they’re just interested in their agenda, so I would be totally against them. I don’t have any control over it, if they come then they come, but my opinion is negative on PACs.
Byron Bevers: I don’t think political action committees are some boogey man to be scared of—I’m an open book. Because there was involvement by a particular political action committee in this election, residents of Shenandoah had the opportunity to view a one-hour video where I was interviewed. They had the opportunity to look at my answers to 19 different questions. 100 residents showed up two weeks ago to listen to a candidate forum that was over two hours. So to use a broad rush and say that political action committees don’t care about the residents of Shenandoah, I think, is bad. The residents of Shenandoah have more information about the candidates that participated than the candidates that didn’t and I think that is good for Shenandoah.
Nancy Smith: Shenandoah residents are free and have always been free to follow their own personal beliefs. Increased partisan politics is detrimental to the city and if elected officials and/or candidates are influenced by them and cease to think independently, I think that’s a problem for the city. Candidates who are affiliated, endorsed by or supported by a political action committee should disclose their relationship to the PAC and make it clear what the policy objectives are of the PAC that they’re in, and that they will be expected to follow those policies in exchange for the PAC’s support—I think that all should be disclosed.
Charlie Bradt: We had a political action committee do our forum and I thought it was done very unbiased, I thought all of the candidates had the opportunity to do questionnaires and everything. I don’t think there was any kind of bias at all, half of us elected not to do it and half of us did so, they’re not the boogey man.
Jean Teague: I would like to comment on the forum that keeps being brought up. Mr. Bagley—the Tea Party organizer of the forum—I never received an email from Mr. Bagley until I reached out to him after hearing about the forum from others. Unfortunately, I had a prior commitment that night and there was no room for him, as he stated, to move the forum to accommodate all candidates. I did not participate in the forum and I chose not to participate in their questionnaire. That’s my choice because I don’t want to be associated with the Tea Party PAC.